Last week, Joe Klein penned a column purporting to show that the Democrats still didn’t “get” national security issues. It included this charming paragraph:
There is broad, bipartisan agreement on how to legalize the surveillance of phone calls and emails of foreign intelligence targets. The basic principle is this: if a suspicious pattern of calls from a terrorist suspect to a U.S. citizen is found, a FISA court warrant is necessary to monitor those communications. But to safeguard against civil-liberty abuses, all records of clearly nontargeted Americans who receive emails or phone calls from foreign suspects would be, in effect, erased. Unfortunately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi quashed the House Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan effort and supported a Democratic bill that — Limbaugh is salivating — would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court, an institution founded to protect the rights of U.S. citizens only. In the lethal shorthand of political advertising, it would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans. That is well beyond stupid.
Now, as Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Singel ably explain, virtually every word of this is false. In fact, it’s so confused that it’s hard to figure out what he’s even talking about. I have no idea what the “House Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan effort” is supposed to refer to (Greenwald and Singel are equally confused), but it certainly doesn’t require warrants for overseas surveillance, which has always been outside the purview of domestic laws. And the RESTORE Act specifically exempts domestic wiretapping of foreign-to-foreign calls from the reach of the FISA courts.
In an accompanying blog post he proposes the bizarre “compromise” of “selective immunity to those telecoms who can provide written proof that they were acting in response to a direct order from the government.” As Klein’s commenters point out, this isn’t Stalinist Russia. Private companies aren’t obligated to obey “direct orders” from the executive branch. They are obligated to obey “direct orders” from the judicial branch in the form of a warrant, but in the absence of a warrant they have “direct orders” from the Congress not to share their customers’ information with the government.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Klein has attempted to defend himself with a weasely follow-up on his blog that concedes he screwed up but nevertheless continues heaping abuse on the Democrats. Because, you see, all that incorrect information he had in last weeks column are “relatively obscure and unimportant technical details” compared to the “larger point” that, for reasons he declines to enumerate, the Democrats are still to blame for the lack of a bipartisan consensus. He also continues to insist that it’s a reasonable “compromise” to give telcos immunity if they were responding to “a direct written request from the government.”
I’m tempted to chalk this up to Republican hackery, but Klein seems to genuinely believe he’s charting a sober middle course between the two extremes. So it appears he’s simply lazy. As Greenwald points out, there seems to be a bizarre journalistic convention in elite media circles that objectivity consists entirely in faithfully transcribing the opinions of both “sides” in a debate, without bothering to make any independent effort to determine who is telling the truth. So if the Democrats say the sky is blue and the Republicans say it’s orange, it would be too “partisan” to write a story saying that the Republicans are wrong. Rather, the objective way to write the story is to say that experts differ on the color of the sky and then lament that agreement isn’t possible because of “blind, stupid partisan politics.”